Facebook, owned by Meta, has promoted surrogate advertisements to aid the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), over its competitors in the 2019 parliamentary elections in India, revealed data collated by The Reporter’s Collective (TRC).
The Collective is a non-profit media organisation based in India, which collaborated with ad.watch that conducted a research project studying political ads on social media, over the past year. The data they had analysed included 536,070 political advertisements on both Facebook and Instagram between February 2019 and November 2020. The analysis aimed to assess the influence of Facebook’s political advertising policies on the elections in India.
Facebook reportedly allowed for surrogate advertisers to secretly fund BJP’s election campaigns while boosting its reach on the platform, based on TRC’s data.
The social media platform allowed NEWJ (New Emerging World of Journalism Limited), a page funded by Reliance, to work a legal loophole to publish surrogate advertisements favouring the BJP and help it gain a wider reach as part of its electoral campaign.
Ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections, the BJP chose Pragya Singh Thakur as a candidate, who was also an accused in the Malegaon blast case, in which six people were killed in the Muslim-majority area in Maharashtra. At the time, Facebook showed an advertisement through NEWJ that wrongly proclaimed that Thakur, who is still under trial, had been “acquitted” of the charges in the case, which got three lakh views in a day. Eventually, she won the elections while out on bail on medical grounds.
A month before the poll day on April 11, 2019, Facebook showed an advertisement ridiculing Congress’s then-president Rahul Gandhi, where he sarcastically referred to Masood Azhar as “Azhar ji” in a speech.
It was further revealed that Facebook’s Ad Library shows that NEWJ published around 170 political advertisements over the three months that led up to the 2019 parliamentary elections. Among which, most of them either glorified BJP leaders, projected the support of voters for party leader Narendra Modi, stoked nationalistic and religious sentiments or mocked opposition leaders and the rallies held by them.
NEWJ is founded by Shalabh Upadhyay, whose father is the President and Director of the Reliance-owned Network-18 group. However, NEWJ does not declare any formal link with the BJP as there is no public record of the party paying the page to create or publish political advertisements.
Under the Indian laws, the publishing of surrogate advertisements that favour a political candidate but are not directly funded or authorised by that candidate, is still a crime. However, the Election Commission of India (ECI) does not extend this ban to digital platforms including Facebook.
As per a response to a Right to Information (RTI) applied by TRC, despite being aware of the loophole, the ECI did not rectify it and Facebook does not implement the rule as well, allowing NEWJ to continue promoting BJP on its platform.
Further, it was also disclosed that Facebook’s algorithm offers cheaper advertisement deals to the BJP over other political parties. The party was reportedly charged a lower rate for advertisements than its oppositions in nine out of the ten elections that the BJP won, including the election in 2019.